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The North Briton

John Wilkes was the scandal-mongering eighteenth century writer who finally won a measure of freedom of speech for the people of these islands. Wilkes was a libertine and a libertarian and the scourge of the establishment; the Guido Fawkes of his time (I'm talking literary matters here; I have no idea if Guido shares Wilkes' predeliction for group sex). 

Since Liberty are clearly not bothered about the Wilders affair, and David Davis, our other reputed champion of civil liberties has likewise gone AWOL, I thought I would make my humble contribution to the debate by quoting a section from the famous issue number 45 of Wilkes' scandal sheet, the North Briton. In his text, Wilkes set about giving offence to all and sundry, including the commendable innovation of accusing the king of lying, in the process neatly laying fair claim to the Englishman's right to give offence.  He also made a general defence of fundamental British liberties in the face of the onslaught against them by politicians of the day. These transgressions by the political class are eerily familiar. Wilkes ended by coming close to a call for rebellion. Readers may wish to discuss the relevance of this idea to the modern fight for civil liberties.

Wilkes had got hold of a copy of the speech that the king was to make at the closing of Parliament and his response - issue 45 of the North Briton - was ready to roll as the king delivered it. No 45 featured page after page of sarcasm and invective against ministers, but I am going to quote a couple of paragraphs directly relevant to us today. The king had called on the members of Parliament to "promote in your several counties that spirit of concord and that obedience to the laws, which is essential to good order".

Concord? How can concord be promoted in the cider-producing counties, where private houses are now made liable to be entered and searched at pleasure?... A nation as sensible as the English, will see that a spirit of concord, when they are oppressed, means a tame submission to injury, and that a spirit of liberty ought then to arise, and I am sure ever will, in proportion to the weight of the grievance they feel. Every legal attempt of a contrary tendency to the spirit of concord will be deemed a justififable resistance, warranted by the spirit of the English Constitution....

The prerogative of the crown is to exert the constitutional powers entrusted to it in a way, not of blind favour and partiality, but of wisdom and judgment. This is the spirit of our constitution. The people too have their prerogative, and, I hope the fine words of Dryden will be engraved on our hearts. 'Freedom is the English subject's prerogative'.


 The colourful story of Wilkes and his fight for liberty is told in John Wilkes - The scandalous father of civil liberty by Arthur H Cash, on which this posting is based.

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Reader Comments (1)

Interesting isn't it, that we owe what remains of our civil liberties to a Parliament whose lower house was filled by representatives from rotten bouroughs and who, anyway, were elected from a minuscule part of the population in open, often corrupt, elections. They won the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688: they passed the Habeas Corpus Act 1679: they passed the 1832 Reform Act.

Now we have a super-democratic House of Commons (which BTW is going on holiday for the next 10 days) complicit in the banning of a Dutch MP who is determined to show a private gathering (in the Palace of Westminster itself) the reality of Koranic peace, justice and tolerance.
Feb 13, 2009 at 10:56 AM | Unregistered CommenterUmbongo

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